Diamonds and Bones: Looking at Institutional Artistic Validation & the Promise of Greatness

I have been quite amiss in my posts these past few months. For some time, I even entertained the notion of shutting this down. I’m afraid that work and studies (and life) have taken their toll. While looking through my old files, I found this essay I submitted for Metrobank’s Art Criticism masterclass last 2016. It is a review of the exhibition “Finding Phenoms in Art” which opened in April 2016 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. I figured might as well post it here while I am unable to write something new.


Diamonds and Bones: Looking at Institutional Artistic Validation & the Promise of Greatness

Somber is an apt description of the exhibition situated on the fourth floor, Pasilyo Victoria Edades of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). Lined in one long row, and flanked by one or two at the sides, the artworks suspended from the wall (or displayed on a pedestal for the lone sculpture) exude a sense of gravitas. Each one a world in itself, sharing neither theme nor medium, neither style nor subject matter, and brought together by a most tenuous thread. If viewing any exhibition is akin to a conversation, then this seemed like a formal dialogue. Hushed, dignified, and brief. Here lies the worthy, they seem to say, as if certain of their importance. This claim to significance, though somewhat affected, may contain a germ of truth— after all, one can argue that these are works validated by two well-known award programs in the visual arts.

The “Finding Phenoms in Art” exhibition that opened on the 8th of April 2016 brought together the winning entries of Metrobank Art and Design Excellence (MADE) whose artists later became part of the CCP’s Thirteen Artists Award (TAA). MADE was initially launched as the Metrobank Annual Painting Competition in 1984, before it evolved into its current state that includes sculpture, architecture, and interior design. The TAA was established a decade earlier, in 1970, to recognize innovative contemporary art making amongst the new generations of artists.

To critique this exhibition is to bring into fore the two awards and to recognize names that had overlapped in their lists. These are the careers launched by MADE: the found phenoms of art. The curatorial framing, however, brings an interesting dimension to the viewing of the exhibition. For in this case, one does not merely see the art object. They do not appear simply as they are. It is not just, for example, Roberto Feleo’s 1984 winning mixed media entry entitled “August 6” that hangs in front of one’s line of vision. Filtering through the viewer’s direct gaze, between the eye and the object’s material existence, is the knowledge of Feleo’s current roles: artist, professor, Thirteen Artist awardee, 2015 Art Fair Philippines special exhibitor, and so on. The gaze is never crystal clear and the work weighs heavily with the mark of time, with significations it did not have when it was first evaluated as a competition entry. Each artwork in the exhibition stands before its viewers now as a promise fulfilled, perhaps as an accurate forecast of future artistic greatness. At the very least, it stands as a sign that bears witness to a career that flourished beyond the confines of the competition. If the curatorial concept is to be believed, these works contained the seeds of success, the skeletal structure that will soon prop up greatness, the bones that serve as evidence of talent. Diamonds in the rough picked out amongst coal.

The first award is a discovery, the second a validation, or so the narrative goes. Such view, however, discounts both the agency of the artists and the sometimes self-fulfilling character of institutional validation. For in an oft-aspired career path that starts with a major amateur competition award, a solo exhibition, and later a CCP TAA, each preceding landmark brings the next goal within reach. Every award makes possible new narratives of advancement but also of exclusion, as the network of artists who successfully climb the ladder becomes ever more constricted. The mislaid, due perhaps to geography, socio-economic standing, or plain bad luck – for artists encounter various complications, economic or otherwise, which shape their priorities and activities, the quality of their work and the recognition they attain – in time find themselves further removed from the short list. Behind every myth of genius in the arts is a life fraught with uncertainty. Behind every survival story, a litter of bones and shattered dreams. In a third world country mired in poverty, pursuing a career as a full-time studio artist is not only impractical, it can also be deadly. In such a context, awards are all the more prestigious, all the more sought after, but also increasingly mired in contradictions and complexities.

Ultimately, a narrative of discovery and institutional validation simplifies the textured, nonlinear development of a life in the arts. It also renders invisible the myriad of artistic practices that take a less conventional route. What of those works that will not hang in galleries, not adopt an aura of prestige and significance, but may in fact be more vibrant as it lives amongst the throngs of masses? What of the artist that does not answer to the calls of institutions, galleries, and the art market? To be aware of the cyclical and exclusionary nature of awards is to recognize its limitations and the scope of its power; it is neither to dismiss the quality and merit of the winners nor to calcify the works and forget the inherent vitality present in every act of creation. For there is, indeed, something joyful in the act of creating, of fashioning form and content. The artworks in the exhibition, though largely different, all bear a sense of containing a world-in-itself. It is as if they were disgorged from distinct bodies of artistic practice that each contained a strong formal, thematic, and conceptually cohesive visual language developed through the years. In their individual visions, they are unyielding and uncompromising. A quality that render them incapable of communicating with one another now, but also perhaps, the same mark that identified them individually as worthy of attention. The pale, disfigured humanoids in Antonio Leaño’s “Concealed Concentric Ebb and Dolorous Earth”, for example, share the formal oddity of Jan Leeroy New’s “Cradle” sculpture. The gaping stares present on the canvas of Andres Barrioquinto’s “House of Love and Confusion” are mirrored by the figures in Neil Manalo’s “Opera, Koro-Koro’t, Kuro Kuro”. One would be hard-pressed, however, to conceptually and thematically tie these works in the context of the exhibition. Their connection lies beyond them, in the recognition bestowed upon their creators by a different institution for a separate but related body of work.

Perhaps, it would be wrong to claim that phenoms in visual art are “found”, as if through chance or accident, and much to the surprise of everyone including the artist himself. Maybe it would be better to claim the creation of a phenom. Artworks are products of labor, sometimes borne out of love, sometimes of necessity, but all the same they are the fruits of labor. To recognize someone as a phenom is to recognize his artistic labor. At the same time, to recognize the process of creation of a phenom is to identify the politics involved in determining which artistic labor is to be validated or ignored.

The works in MADE’s “Finding Phenoms in Art” continue to hang somewhat dolorously on the walls of the CCP, almost like carcasses, as the once forecasted artistic trajectories of its creators are played out in the flesh. They keep to themselves, strange relics of a possibility of greatness once foretold. Tied intimately to a brief, but career-defining moment, they wait; perhaps, for a time in which a different layer of personal achievement or social understanding can bring them to life.